Who said anything about a ‘valley generation’ that will go berserk… 김은중호, 4강 진출한 힘은

“It hurt the most to hear the young players say that we were going to be knocked out in the group stage.”

Kim Eun-joong, 44, who led South Korea to the quarterfinals of the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup, broke down in tears in an interview on Friday (ET) after the quarterfinal match against Nigeria. “I was worried about being in the spotlight while going to the World Cup,” he said, “and I’m grateful to the players who silently followed me so that I could turn their concerns into expectant support.”

South Korea won a thrilling 1-0 victory over Nigeria in the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup in Santiago del Estero, Argentina, on Sunday with a header from Choi Seok-hyun (20-Dankook University). The victory marked the third consecutive quarterfinal appearance for Korea and the first for an Asian team since 1983 (fourth) and 2019 (runner-up). It is the only unbeaten team among the four semifinalists in the tournament. Kim Jung-ho will face Italy, who have reached the final four in three consecutive tournaments, at 6 a.m. on Sept. 9 in La Plata.

◇’Goal-scoring defender’ Choi Seok-hyun

Both teams played cautiously on the day, wary of the opponent’s counterattacks, and went into overtime without any results. In the fifth minute of overtime, captain Lee Seung-won (20, Gangwon) sent in a short corner kick that Choi Seok-hyun, who quickly dug into an empty space, headed in to split the goal. Choi also scored the winning goal with his head in the last round of 16 match against Ecuador, finishing off Lee’s corner kick to advance to the quarterfinals.

Choi, who has established himself as a goal-scoring defender, is 178 centimeters tall. This is not very tall for a central defender whose average height is in the mid-to-late 180 centimeters. “I remember him personally training for headers every day in the early morning and evening to overcome his physical weaknesses,” said Park Ki-wook, the former Hyundai Go coach who coached him in high school. As a youngster, he played as a flanker and used his head to save the day in the U-20 Asian Cup quarterfinals against China in March, scoring a header in stoppage time to help his team advance to the quarterfinals. He is the only college student among the 18 field players on the roster. He cites 176cm tall Italian defensive legend Fabio Cannavaro (50) as a role model, saying, “I’m not very tall, but I’m confident in my headers based on my jumping power and positioning. When defending, I try to use my speed to compete with the opposing striker.”

Choi is joined by Kim Ji-soo (19-Seongnam) as the team’s starting central defenders to form a solid backline for the tournament. Against Nigeria, Choi single-handedly commanded the defense when Kim was substituted late in the match due to injury, and the team did not concede a goal until the end. Captain Lee Seung-won recorded his fifth offensive point (1 goal, 4 assists) on the day to become the tournament’s top assist leader.

◇The ‘Valley Generation’ bonded together

This team was dubbed the “valley generation” before the tournament. This is the opposite of “golden generation,” meaning that they are not as good as their predecessors. At the 2017 U-20 World Cup in South Korea, Lee Seung-woo (25-Suwon FC) and Baek Seung-ho (26-North Korea), then with FC Barcelona in Spain, and Lee Kang-in (22-Mallorca) at the 2019 tournament in Poland, the team traveled to Argentina in relative obscurity, with no household names to speak of. But this atmosphere has brought the players closer together. “If people don’t know us,” they said, “we’ll just have to be good and let them know.

The result of their eagerness was their work on set pieces. South Korea scored four of their eight goals at the tournament from set pieces, including three from corners and one from free kicks. “We spent nine days at the base camp in Brazil working on our set pieces, and that helped us,” said Kim Eun-joong. Faced with an objective numerical disadvantage against European, South American, and African powerhouses, the team aimed to catch them by surprise with a promised pattern of play based on tight organization. “We practiced a lot of plays where we would take a short corner kick and someone would cut it off in front of us, and it worked today,” said Lee Seung-won.

South Korea was out-shot 4-22 and out-ballooned 34-51 (%) by Nigeria on the day, but managed to convert their only shot on target into a goal with their signature ‘silly soccer’ style. “The coach believed in us, and we believed in him,” the players said of the ‘one-man team’ and the ‘fourth place myth’. Whenever Kim saw the younger players sagging or mentally unstable, he would approach them to cheer them up. When Choi Seok-hyun blamed himself after being sent off in the second group game against Honduras, instead of taking him aside and scolding him, he said, “I wasn’t going to send him out for the third game anyway to save his strength, and today’s sending off removed his accumulated cards, so it’s actually much better for the team.”

Striker Lee Young-joon (20, Kim Cheon-sang-mu) said, “He often plays a joke on the manager and coach first.” The players also enjoyed dousing Kim, who was interviewed after the game in tears, with water. Lee set a new goal after seeing the coach’s tears. “We’ll make you cry one more time in the quarterfinals, so you can look forward to it.” 먹튀검증

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